Here’s how to make U.S. schools best in world

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

When you talk to folks about education, be they teachers or school athletic boosters, the phrase one hears most often is, “It’s all about the kids.”

But then when it comes to hashing out education policy, the only conclusion can be, “It’s all about the adults.”

We have been at war with each other over education policy in this nation for almost a half century. We have gotten very good at blaming each other. It’s bad teachers, bad parents, the media, insufficient funding, unfair testing, broken homes, poverty, etc. The only universal response has been, “The problem isn’t people like me.”

Meanwhile, an international testing system called Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has regularly scored the United States near the bottom. That’s not news.

But before we single anyone out for blame, I’d suggest you read a fascinating new book, “The Smartest Kids in the World … and How They Got That Way,” by Amanda Ripley.

In the opening pages of the book is a chart ranking about 15 nations by their PISA scores. The U.S. is near the bottom, ahead of only Italy and Norway. At the top are Finland and South Korea.

Ripley then followed three outbound foreign exchange students, who went to Finland, South Korea and Poland respectively, to learn how their education systems differ from the United States. By the time she has finished, Ripley has popped almost every balloon.

Teachers, she writes, are held in higher regard elsewhere than they are here. One symptom is that teacher preparation is not treated seriously. The average ACT score of a U.S. college student majoring in education is 19, two points below the national average. It isn’t restrictive to get into an education college. Just about anybody can, and we regularly turn out far more education majors than we need.

Ripley says college students generally think of education as an easy major. We’ve become so cavalier about it that now efforts are being made to license teachers without even that training.

In those other countries, however, becoming a teacher is a rigorous, selective process. In Finland, you have to be in the top third of your high school class just to get into an education college. Even then, many students don’t make it. Teaching is too important to let anybody do it.

Every teacher is highly trained and an expert in the subjects they teach.

Finland pays its teachers a lot more than the U.S. does, but overall it spends quite a bit less per pupil. Why? Teachers take on larger class sizes, but the society has the expectation that all students can learn, regardless of background. As a result, they cover fractions or decimals in a fraction of the time that U.S. schools do. The entire society insists on academic rigor, with parents supporting teachers. How’s that for a novel idea?

In Finland, when a student falters, there is no passing him or her along to the next grade unready. Instead, a horde of teachers “descends upon the child like a pit crew,” giving the child the instruction needed, no exceptions.

Another important factor is that in high-performing nations like Finland, the schools having the most difficulty educating children get the most resources. Ripley says only the United States, Israel, Turkey and Slovenia, among the industrial world, don’t direct extra resources where needed.

The truth is that American society has become so wealthy that we have forgotten that it takes hard work to compete globally— and that the hard work begins in childhood when we go to school.

As just one symptom of our misplaced priorities, parents spend more time and energy trying to get rid of athletic coaches than they do making sure that their little Johnny has the foundation he needs to become a world-class computer programmer or an industrial designer capable of competing in the global economy.

Ripley says parents ignore that there is no correlation between parents being actively involved in activities such as coaching a youth sports team or volunteering at the school, and their child’s academic achievement. It is far more important for parents to read to their preschoolers every day, to be talking to them daily about what they learned academically once in school, and eventually discussing with them the news of the world.

I hesitated to write this column because last week it was reported that Minnesota had the highest math scores in the nation. In fact, Ripley singles Minnesota out as having one of the top education systems in the U.S., and attributes its math prowess to realigning its math goals and benchmarks in 1995. Having a few straightforward goals is better than the mishmash of state and local guidelines that teachers have to navigate in some states.

However, Minnesota can hardly rest on those laurels when we still have so many kids dropping out and so many more under-performing. If we want schools to be “All about the kids,” we need to practice that, not just say it, and educators, parents and taxpayers all need to start agreeing on that.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected].